By Kim Robson:
We like supporting companies that practice environmentally-aware policies, including using recycled plastic in their products. But recycled plastic raises an interesting question: Which is better — creating more demand for recycled plastic, which would help increase its price as a world commodity and make it more worthwhile for recycling companies, or is it simply increasing the demand for plastic in general?
Our feelings about bottled waterare clear: there’s no reason for it and we all should be drinking filtered tap water from reusable bottles. But increasing the demand for recycled plastic is an important part of the recycling loop. Demand for recycled plastic is, sadly, very low.
Also, once recycled plastic has reached the end of its usability, it is no longer recyclable. In other words, recycled plastic is NOT recyclable. Recycled plastic is considered “No. 7 – Other” because of its mixed nature.
On the other hand, increasing the demand for recycled plastic in the U.S. might help counter the current plastic recycling ban imposed by China. Half of U.S. recycling is exported to China, who also takes recyclable waste from Canada, the U.K. and Japan. In 2016, China received over 7.3 million metric tons of recyclable material, plus they manufactured 74.7 metric tons of their own virgin plastic.
Nearly all of the plastic in the ocean comes from only ten rivers in the world:
- Yangtze River
- Indus River
- Yellow River
- Hai River
- Nile River
- Ganges River
- Pearl River
- Amur River
- Niger River
- Mekong River
Five of them run through China. The Yangtze River alone carries about 22 metric tons of garbage into the ocean each year. Starting last January, in an effort to stop plastic from entering the ocean, China — per an agreement with the UN — has banned all imports of paper and plastic for recycling that have a greater than 1% contamination rate. For comparison, Recology, a waste management company headquartered in San Francisco and perhaps the most advanced recycling facility in the country, has the lowest bale contamination rate in the U.S., averaging 5% per bale.
The reason our contamination rates are so high is that Americans aren’t great at rinsing/cleaning what goes into the recycle bin, which results in higher contamination rates in the bales. The contamination can vary from minor (some peanut butter left in a jar) to toxic (hazardous household cleaners). Once everything is shipped to China, workers there have to sort it all out, and much of it ends up in landfills. Or rivers.
Recycling is a business, not a charity. We’ve been doing a lousy job of sorting and following recycling guidelines, and China has decided they’re fed up with dealing with it. According to Rogue Waste Systemsin Oregon, “Right now, by definition, that material out there is garbage. It has no value. There is no demand for it in the marketplace. It’s garbage.”
Bottom line, we need to embrace zero waste solutions. Recycling was never going to be the answer. China’s ban may force a lot of businesses to come up with new solutions.